Going Analog

Where video game industry veterans introduce great board games to video gamers

Going to Japan...with Let's Go! To Japan

The board game that shaped our international trip

It was an unremarkable email thread that initially had nothing to do with the story you’re about to read, but a small graphic within would later affect events half a world away.

We’re overdramatizing things here, but it’s technically true. In a reply from Alderac Entertainment Group’s (AEG) former PR rep Vlad Orellana, we noticed a small banner advertising something we hadn’t heard of at that point: “Let’s Go! To Japan – Coming in 2023!”

What’s this? The publisher is making a board game about planning a trip to Japan? And we discovered this when, literally, we were deep into our calendars, spreadsheets, YouTube videos, and travel blogs to map out our first-ever visit to the country? The coincidence was just too good. And AEG agreed.

The company sent us an early prototype copy to check out before we flew overseas, and what we played literally changed the course of our vacation.

Let’s Go! To Japan, the board game

As Let’s Go! To Japan is just releasing as we publish this story (Kickstarter backers have gotten it, and it’s hitting retail in May 2024), you might not be all that familiar with it yet. The short version….

Designer Josh Wood was planning his own ambitious trip that the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic unkindly canceled for him. But he channeled all that work and research into a simple board game where players draft cards that represented activities they’d like to do as tourists of the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto. 

Eating soba and tempura. Feeding the fuzzy denizens of a monkey park. Touring a castle. Shopping at gigantic department stores. Going to a baseball game. Visiting an ancient temple. And so on.

Players map out the activities/cards to a week’s visit, three per day, to combo various bonuses together. The game rewards you for preparing for the trip effectively, including not wasting too much time going back and forth between the two cities. Bullet trains are awesome to ride -- but cost time and money, ya know.

It’s all so thematic and so pretty to look at. Each of the cards show a watercolor illustration alongside some background text explaining what you’re doing or where you’re visiting (including how to pronounce some of the trickier words). Let’s Go! To Japan takes you, well, to Japan. You can practically hear the gentle breeze snaking through the towering trees in Arashiyama’s bamboo grove.

Which, four months later, we did.

Let’s Go! To Japan, for real

We didn’t take the full game with us, despite the box’s modest dimensions. This was nearly a two-week trip for us, and we were already straining our suitcase zippers.

But we’ve already played it a few times before the trip, and the point wasn’t to do the same in Japan. We wanted to real-life see/eat/do what the game would have us see/eat/do, so we just took the cards with us.

Now, we didn’t literally plan all 11 days around what Josh Wood and co. inspired us to do. We had teamLab Planets Tokyo, Tokyo Game Market, Tokyo DisneySea, plus several friends to see -- none of which are in the board game (strange that “have cocktails with Mark and John at a secret Nintendo-themed bar” didn’t make it in).

But whenever we had free time, we consulted the deck like they were tarot cards. What did the very near future have in store for us?

Below is a photo journal. We posed with various Let’s Go! To Japan cards next to their real-world counterparts. We couldn’t do it all, of course. We only had so much time to squeeze everything in, just like in the game. But maybe you can tell from our smiles -- we felt like we scored really well in the end.

Let's Go! To Tokyo

We're starting this off with cute cat pictures because we know it'll hook you in. We had some deep cafe conversation with some rescue cats (OK, Christina had to bribe them with treats), and we took some time to drink tea for a much-needed energy recharge (worth eight extra points).

Just this one shop alone had dozens of aisles of gachapon machines. For just a few yen, you can buy suprise little toys and figurines to display back home or toss in the trash.

This is the statue right outside Shibuya Station that memoralizes the legendary and famously loyal doggie. We didn't want to wait in line to take a pic, though, so this is the best you're gonna get from us.

We needed to coffee up before heading to Tokyo Game Market and found this indoor-climbing cafe. We'd say that's pretty themed....

Shoe invades Christina’s private dining nook as she slurps up noodles at one of the most classic joints: Ichiran, which specializes in tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen.

OK, it's a bit of a stretch to call what we did a "hike," but we did walk through Inokishara Park near the Ghibli Museum (where Christina was scolded for taking photos, somehow missing the million "no photography" signs all over the palce).

We stopped by the rooftop Miyashita Park to check out the cityscape...and let Christina boulder on the climbing wall to show off in front of small children.

The “nerd district” (our words) Akihabara is just filled with stores selling video games, anime, manga, and electronics. Strangely (or maybe this is perfectly normal), the area had a ton of maid cafes, too, with frilly dressed women out front trying to entice customers in.

And of course we had to stop by a board game store in Akihabara -- the Yellow Submarine game store chain, to be precise. We picked up nana (Trioand ito that we could not shut up about on our podcast about this time last year.

Taking the bullet train! This was actually from Tokyo to Osaka. (In Let's Go! To Japan, you get these train tickets to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto.)

Let's Go! To...Osaka

OK, so we're bending the theme of this article a bit because in Let's Go! To Japan, you don't ever visit the famed city of Osaka. But we did and got some photos that fit a couple of the cards too well. So here we go....

We bought some tasty snack gifts for family back home from the little Naniwaya shop in Kuromon Market. It wasn't wrapped in furoshiki cloth like on the card, but the deluxe version of Let's Go! To Japan actually does!

Eating some amazing duck soba with some fresh donabe mix rice for breakfast at the tiny Teuchi-soba Namiichi.

Let's Go! To Kyoto

In the game, you can travel back and forth between Tokyo and Kyoto as much as you want, but you'll lose points if you don't procure bullet-train tickets for each trip (hence, the need to schedule things efficiently). In real life, we planned ultra efficiently: Tokyo to Osaka to Kyoto, one stop in each city. In Kyoto, we got to experience....

The massive stalks in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove just blocked out rest of the world for us. Too bad we couldn't be alone here, with other tourists spoiling the views (and probably saying the same thing about that couple who keeps taking selfies with cards from a board game).

We were constantly walking by humble shrines throughout the Arashiymama area of Kyoto.

We got to Tenryuji Temple after it closed, so we missed the cloud dragon ceiling painting.

We stayed one night at a ryokan. It was so beautiful and serene with multiple meals (including late-night ramen). Shoe messed up the vibe, though, when he got politely scolded for wearing sandals in the lobby area where you're supposed to only walk around in socks.

We were dying to try some sushi on this ponto-cho (a narrow cooridor filled with restaurants), but we just couldn't fit it in.

Sick of food photos yet? Well too bad. We had to do "Eat ramen at the best place!" again because this was our favorite of the entire trip. (Shoe's #1 meal, period, and top 3 for Christina.) Icchan in Kyoto looks low-key but serves this amazing Jamaican-style ramen with jerk chicken and coconut milk. We still think about this dish to this day. Thanks to our friends at 17-BIT for treating us to lunch here!

Kyoto had long shopping arcades everywhere, each packed with shops selling toys, snacks, cooking knives, clothing...with plenty of restaurants in between. You could spend an entire trip in Kyoto just wandering these.

...like Nishiki Market, which we liked so much, we went through it more than once.

Finally, Kyoto Tower. We didn't get to go up it to get a wider view of the city, but we managed to get this shot for the last Let's Go! To Japan card we tackled on this trip.

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